January 29, 2008

Some Study: Flattery Starts At 4yo

A Chinese-Canadian study published in Developmental Science shows that kids learn to "flatter" around the age of 4. The finding was based on kids in three age groups, 3, 4, and 5, being asked to judge artworks. The 3yo's weren't, but by the time they're 4, kids' assessments were more flattering when the artist was present, whether the artist was a stranger or not.

Set aside for a moment the methodology; I'll assume the developmental sociologists who peer-reviewed the study know how to quantify the art criticism skills of toddlers. What sounds wrong to me is this interpretation by Dr. Kang Lee, co-author of the paper:

Lee suggests adults flatter for two reasons. It can be to show gratitude for some positive action in the past. As well, when they’re meeting someone for first time – someone who may turn out to be important for their advancement down the road – flattery is also used as an investment for future favourable treatment from the person. “We don’t know which the child is doing,” says Lee. However, the fact that the older children flattered strangers as well as familiar people suggests “they are thinking ahead, they are making these little social investments for future benefits.”
I just think this is an uncritical crock, and expecting a child's behavior to mirror one of two arbitrary interpretations of adult motivation seems extremely dubious.

If the kids in the study are anything like our kid or her friends and preschool peers, they grow up in a hermetic hothouse of encouragement and praise, especially when it comes to creative activities like making art. The kid's surprised us several times by praising our work using what are obviously the phrases and responses that have been modeled for her by us and her teachers. If a 4-yo is better at that than a 3-yo, who would be surprised?

But more seriously, this "social investment for future benefits" interpretation doesn't seem to make any accounting for the here and now. Wouldn't a more likely explanation for flattery be an immediate desire for well-being and positive interaction? Wouldn't a kid be learning how to talk to someone in a way that makes them liked, or at least a way that produces pleasant results? Not that kids are zen masters living entirely and only in the moment, but it seems more likely than the more Fountainhead-y explanation Lee puts forward.

When Flattery Rears Its Head [utoronto.ca via collisiondetection, where clive & co have a new kid, mazeltov!]


Don't we teach our kids to be polite, to avoid hurting others' feelings? That seems to me to be the simplest explanation for flattery (when the flattery is in the nature of something like art criticism)--the 4-year-olds are old enough to have gotten our message.

(Although my 2-yo frequently says "Good job, Mommy" when I draw a picture! Obviously, he's copying what he hears from parents and teachers).

I find that logic dubious, as well. I think it's much more likely that toddlers are mimicking what we've modeled for them as kind and acceptable behavior, and/or saying nice things as an expression of love or fondness. Followed closely by the third option that they offer praise for others because it generates a positive response.

My just-turned-three-year-old offers praise to anyone within earshot over just about anything: "You went potty, mommy! Good job!" That she'll improve at this skill over time seems obvious.

I've seen a lot of studies lately linking behavior to Darwinian selection. One story I saw on Slashdot examined whether altruism was "real", or whether it might have given populations with a few altruistic individuals an evolutionary leg up on all-selfish populations. I guess that's the vogue these days -- a return to a form of Social Darwinism, perhaps as a reaction to the Intelligent Design upswing. Strange thing about pendulums... they never seem to settle at that sensible spot in the middle.

Only two options, one of which is "...an investment for future favourable treatment...".

Is it just me or does this tell us much more about Dr. Lee than it does about the behavior of the 4 year olds?

Flattery (saying something nice) is preferable for at least a few other reasons:
-Politeness is what we're training them to exhibit. Genuine empathy would be great, but we all just build the behavior then backfill later with the compassion justification.
-If there is even the simplest understanding of compassion, the kid will say something nice.
-saying something nice will more quickly terminate the situation. Unpleasant comments typicaly provoke at least a "That's not very nice. Why did you say that?" that would draw out the tedious interview with Dr. Lee.

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